Obama’s war in Africa

November 6, 2012

Lee Wengraf surveys the escalation of American military intervention in Africa.

WITH ELECTION Day approaching, antiwar activists and progressives have rightly criticized Barack Obama's record of warfare across Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. But the Obama administration has also been waging a secret and brutal war in Africa, a continent already devastated by a long string of Western-fueled civil wars.

Attention most recently focused on Obama's move against Joseph Kony, leader of the East African Lords' Resistance Army (LRA). This spring's Kony 2012 video, which went viral, spurred a renewed call to capture this "genocidal maniac."

But beneath the "white man's burden" framework of the Kony 2012 campaign, critical new developments in Obama's strategy to expand military intervention in Africa have come to light.

First off, there is more to the Kony intervention than meets the eye. Obama justifies the pursuit of Kony in "humanitarian" terms. In October 2011, Obama dispatched 100 troops to Uganda to "remove Kony from the battlefield," meaning to capture or kill him. This intervention was supplemented with a $45 million military aid package to Uganda, which included four drones. And in March 2012, the African Union (AU) announced a 5,000-strong force for the region.

A U.S. major general inspects Ugandan troops
A U.S. major general inspects Ugandan troops (Brock Jones)

Kony certainly has a long record of brutalizing villagers with campaigns of terror and murder. Nonetheless, five years ago, the LRA was routed from Uganda and reduced from 10,000 to a small, roving force of several hundred. Kony poses little military threat to the Ugandan government or U.S. national security.

At the same time, the human rights record of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a close U.S. ally, is horrific--but Obama has continued the long tradition of U.S. assistance to the Ugandan regime, including funds to target the LRA. Museveni's war against the people of Northern Uganda has been brutal, including 2008's U.S.-supported Operation Lightning Thunder that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced up to 200,000.

One portrait of the Museveni regime from the Guardian describes "a constitutional dictatorship, with a rubber stamp parliament, powerless judiciary, censored media and heavily militarised civil institutions...[and] the harassment of Museveni's political opponents."

Yet sadly, mainstream organizations like Human Rights Watch--called "humanitarian militarists" by one critic--champion intervention against the LRA, lobbying Obama to "put real muscle into making [military operations] work."

The Kony intervention brings Obama's wider strategy into focus: under the cover of humanitarianism, Obama aims to expand U.S. military control over the continent. Intensifying competition with Europe and China throughout Africa has driven forward increased troop levels, "covert" operations--secret bases and drone warfare--and support for local proxies. Beneath lies a scramble for Africa's many resources, including oil, a heightened counter-terrorism agenda and a new project of widening the U.S. footprint on the continent.

IT IS no exaggeration to say that the U.S. is at war in Africa. The continent is awash with American military bases, covert operations and thousands of Western-funded troops, and responsibility for this escalation must be laid squarely on Obama's doorstep.

Key to the Obama administration global strategy in the post-Iraq era is a shift from "boots on the ground" towards "alliance-building." The idea is to cement American "indispensability" to African political stability in geo-strategically critical areas--from the Horn of Africa, with its proximity to the Suez Canal and Middle East, to West African nations, with billions of barrels of oil.

A Pentagon report from January 2012 outlines objectives of "working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories." The U.S. can conveniently define and redefine this broadly stated policy as needed--whether it's arming the "war on terror" or facilitating "humanitarian intervention" (the hunt for Kony). But beneath the veneer of "partnership" is the aim of asserting American power and shoring up key allies in order to expand the U.S. footprint on a resource-rich continent.

Foreign-policy architects have cynically marshaled support for this project by foregrounding the first American president of African descent. In the words of Obama adviser and "humanitarian hawk" Samantha Power:

Part of having a credible American leader again who is unimplicated with the war in Iraq, who is very attractive to people around the world, is to somehow use that early wind at his back to try to extract commitments to patrol the commons, to actually deal with these broken people and broken places.

This shift in strategy explains the Obama administration's embrace of proxy warfare, secret operations and indirect military support. According to Wired contributor David Axe, a frequent writer on security in Africa:

The U.S. military's "offshore balancing" strategy...[is] meant to minimize long-term deployments of large ground armies by emphasizing air and naval forces working in conjunction with local and regional "proxy" armies...Full-scale interventions like Afghanistan are probably a thing of the past. Somalia-style, "hands-off" campaigns are the future.

THIS APPROACH has translated into an expansion of AFRICOM "smaller-scale" initiatives, including training for African militaries and the supply of military equipment like drones and naval forces. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense announced an increase of roughly 3,000 soldiers to be deployed across Africa in 2013.

U.S. troops are now in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan--in addition to a number of other locations. For example, several hundred Special Forces personnel operate in West Africa, including in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

In late 2011, a secret network of drone bases was revealed in the Horn of Africa, fully equipped with Reaper "hunter-killer" drones. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported on the frightening expansion of this network of bases across the continent:

The operations have intensified in recent months, part of a growing shadow war against al-Qaeda affiliates and other militant groups. The surveillance is overseen by U.S. Special Operations forces but relies heavily on private military contractors and support from African troops.

The surveillance underscores how Special Operations forces, which have played an outsize role in the Obama administration's national security strategy, are working clandestinely all over the globe, not just in war zones. The lightly equipped commando units train foreign security forces and perform aid missions, but they also include teams dedicated to tracking and killing terrorism suspects.

And just last month, reporters revealed a North African plan for "a series of clandestine intelligence missions...to conduct surveillance flights and monitor communications over the Sahara Desert and the arid region to the south, known as the Sahel."

But it's the crucial East and Central African regions that have been a particular focus for intensive counter-terror and military activities. Last year, Nation investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill uncovered a secret campaign against so-called Islamic terrorists al-Shabab in Somalia, with interrogation chambers, CIA surveillance, drones and Special Forces.

Following a drone attack in June 2011, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan reiterated focusing not on "deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us." According to Scahill, Brennan singled out al-Shabab, saying, "We cannot and we will not let down our guard. We will continue to pummel Al Qaeda and its ilk."

In the words of David Axe:

Along with the counterterrorism campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and the Philippines, the Somalia drone war demonstrates how high-tech U.S. forces can inflict major damage on America's enemies at relatively low cost...and without most U.S. citizens having any idea it's even happening...The sheer number of flying robots tumbling out of the sky over Somalia seems to indicate much more intensive...operations than official and press reports imply.

DRONE WARFARE has had a devastating impact on Somalia, a nation engulfed in more than two decades of civil fueled throughout by U.S. intervention. As one Somali told Axe, "You Americans, you'll destroy an entire city to get three people."

Pursuing clandestine warfare and other tactics is only possible with the support of a network of regional allies. Ugandan President Museveni is a lynchpin of the Obama administration's strategy in East Africa. Of course, a significant part of the administration's interest is directly tied to oil. Two and a half billion barrels of oil have been discovered in Uganda.

South Sudan, Uganda's neighbor and ally, split from the Sudan last year and now controls about three-quarters of the formerly united country's oil production. The U.S. has provided South Sudan with military aid, likely to further inflame conflicts between South Sudan and Sudan.

Uganda also supplies African Union troops to back up the U.S.-supported Somali government and its civil war with al-Shabab. Not only is Somalia's location in the Horn of Africa strategically critical, but oil companies this spring began bidding for drilling rights. The Guardian cited claims that the "potential is comparable to that of Kuwait, which has more than 100 billion barrels of proven oil reserves," and that "if true, the deposits would eclipse Nigeria's reserves and make Somalia the seventh largest oil-rich nation."

"Somalia is Uganda's claim that we have a solution for your security concerns in the region," explains Africa scholar Mahmood Mamdani. "It fits very nicely with the American claim that the primary problem of Africa is not development, nor democracy, nor even the lack of human rights, but security."

The U.S. also arms Somalia's neighbor Kenya, an important regional ally for the U.S. in its counter-terror agenda. Within days of Obama's Kony announcement, Kenya invaded Somalia, escalating one of the world's largest refugee crises with a half-million Somali refugees along the border alone. Nearby Ethiopia, another important U.S. ally, invaded Somalia in 2006 and again last winter and received close to $1 billion in aid last year.

Further south, Uganda is the American proxy, along with Rwanda, in the nightmare plunder of the Congo where a decades-long conflict "has emerged as nothing short of a blood-soaked scramble for the vast profits to be made off the Congolese people and their land."

Responding to Obama's Kony announcement, the online social justice journal Pambazuka asked:

Why now, when in the Congo worse atrocities occur daily, committed by militias far more brutal than the LRA, which were created and sustained by Uganda's Museveni and Rwanda's [Paul] Kagame? These two U.S.-backed dictators have been able to siphon billions of dollars of Congo's wealth by sponsoring mayhem--massacres, mass rapes and mutilations...Why is Obama not lifting a finger to punish those responsible for crimes against humanity in Congo? Isn't it because he is shielding Museveni and Kagame from accountability?

THE OBAMA administration builds on a long tradition of U.S. intervention in Africa since the end of colonialism. During the Cold War, superpower competition drove both the U.S. and the USSR to create allies and proxies in Africa as a way to extend their global reach. This competition drove an ever-shifting network of alliances, military funding, proxy wars, clandestine operations and the use of the CIA as well as a drive to extend American influence through global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But as New York Times journalist Jeffrey Gettleman explains:

Africa...had the bad luck of gaining its independence as the Cold War was at its height and the United States and Soviet Union were trying to recruit proxies; the East–West rivalry therefore shaped much of Africa's internal politics and many of its rebellions. The superpowers propped up brutal, thoroughly hated tyrants purely because they supported one side or another, and likewise co-opted rebel groups and plied them with money and guns to fight for or against communism. When the Cold War abruptly ended in 1990, the superpowers' sudden disengagement from the African continent left a number of tyrants exposed and ripe for overthrow.

This background makes clear the willingness of the U.S.'s local allies to embrace superpower support and deploy local forces on their behalf.

Today, global competition drives Obama's foreign policy. During the past decade, the U.S. has engaged in a fierce battle with China for worldwide economic and military preeminence. The aim has been to encircle and contain China's growing reach. The Economist reported a Department of Defense announcement that by 2020, 60 percent of American warships would be stationed in Asia, along with "a range of other 'investments' to ensure that despite China's fast-growing military might, America would still be able to 'rapidly project military power if needed to meet our security commitments.'"

Intensified competition with China, and other powers such as Russia, is fueling the higher levels of U.S. military involvement in Africa and a new scramble for resources. This scramble is mainly about oil, in which Africa plays a critical supply role for both China and the U.S., but also about increased overall investment in resources--from diamonds and gold to land for agricultural investment. South Africa's mineral wealth, for example, is estimated at $2.5 trillion.

Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent since 2000, and China is Africa's largest trading partner. Trade between the two jumped more than 40 percent last year, compared with only 18 percent for the U.S.

Africa has about 10 per cent of global oil reserves, and West Africa is projected to supply up to a quarter of U.S. oil consumption by 2015. Oil imports from Africa have already surpassed those from the Middle East, and many American oil majors do big business in Africa.

But China has been elbowing the U.S. out of trade deals in African nations such as the Sudan, Angola and Congo, and secured drilling mineral rights across the continent. Earlier this year, a Chinese national oil company announced that its worldwide oil production capacity now surpassed Exxon.

SECURING ACCESS to oil underpins Obama's "security concerns." Former President George W. Bush created the AFRICOM military command, celebrating its launch as "protecting the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market" in the face of "oil disruption," "terrorism" and the growing influence of China.

Yet under Obama, AFRICOM's budget stands at $302 million, almost tripling since its 2007 launch. And these funds don't include vast sums spent on training, arming and financing African militaries, which climbed to about $1 billion plus another $1 billion for private military contractors.

Asia Times writer Pepe Escobar describes the current dynamics this way:

The big picture remains the Pentagon's AFRICOM spreading its militarized tentacles against the lure of Chinese soft power in Africa, which goes something like this: in exchange for oil and minerals, we build anything you want, and we don't try to sell you "democracy for dummies." The Bush administration woke up to this threat a bit too late...Under the Obama administration, the mood is total panic. For [CIA chief and four-star general David] Petraeus, the only thing that matters is "the long war" on steroids--from boots on the ground to armies of drones; and who are the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department to disagree?

Yet despite the millions for militarization, the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism have saddled Africa with devastating rates of poverty, hunger and disease. Sub-Saharan Africa today has a gross national per capita income of about $1,125 and an average life expectancy of 53 years. Africa has immense resources, but these only enrich foreign corporations, a handful of African rulers and a small group of wealthy Africans.

Many have criticized the implicit racism of Kony 2012 and similar efforts, which assume that solutions must be driven by the West. In the words of one Ugandan writer who condemns this approach:

Our "freedom" today is fought for by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International...Our "civil wars" are ended by UN peacekeepers...Our "economic policies" are determined by the World Bank and IMF; our "poverty" is fought by Bill Gates, Bono and Jeffery Sachs; our "crimes" are adjudicated upon by the ICC [International Criminal Court]; our "liberation" achieved through NATO war planes.

Some have argued that the African Union offers an alternative to intervention by Western global powers. But the AU has proven itself an extension of superpower military interests, including its newfound alliances with NATO and AFRICOM.

None of these hold the solution to the terrifying militarization and corporatization of Africa. The only way forward is opposition to Obama's plans for intervention in Africa in any form--from AFRICOM to covert operations to the corporate rampage of its natural resources. The U.S. is the greatest purveyor of violence in Africa, and it will only be brought to a halt by resistance from and solidarity with ordinary Africans struggling for an end to U.S. military intervention there.

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